What makes a good innovator? Jason Miller dives into the best ways an innovator can improve their digital strategy.

For years we have seen surveys and research data about how innovation is a top growth driver for organizations across industries. CEOs and executives often lament their organizations’ ability to “be more innovative” and “think bigger.”

For me, innovation has always been an area of interest and professional curiosity, because it’s so hard to get right. Even the most successful innovators like Apple and Google can’t (or won’t) explain what makes their innovation efforts so successful.

With the rise of innovation, we have seen many organizations use digital as a growth lever to stimulate innovation initiatives. As digital strategy leaders, we need to take a hard look at the best practices for improving innovation within our organization. How exactly do we do this?

Here are five things that innovators can do to improve their digital strategy:

1. Foster a culture of innovation

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone by himself, he had the Apple organization behind him. Even the best leaders need help executing their innovation initiatives.

Give people the autonomy they need to think creatively about problem-solving. This doesn’t mean they have the autonomy to decide what digital strategy projects to work on, but they should have the autonomy to decide how to execute the project.

2. Think big, start small, act fast

Understand how innovation supports – or accelerates – the digital strategy. Think broadly about what your organization truly needs to move the needle: this could be accelerating new product development, pivoting the business model, reimagining the way employees do their job or creating entirely new customer experiences. Identify the techniques and tools needed to tap the natural creativity of customers and employees to create a “free market of ideas.”

The other side of the innovation challenge is execution. Build your innovation team with the right mix of internal employees and external partners to mitigate skills gaps. Develop a process that defines roles and responsibilities of innovation team members and interaction points with other departments and teams in the organization. Don’t isolate the innovation team from the larger organization. You will need these interactions and trusted relationships to scale innovation initiatives.

3. Don’t wing it – use research to truly understand the customer experience

Great ideas and digital strategies don’t just happen. They are informed by customer research and insights. Get out of the office and talk with customers, frontline employees and people who operate at the edge of organizations. Mix and match creative research techniques such as ethnography research, design thinking, human-centered design, crowdsourcing and gamification to understand the factors that improve the customer experience.

4. Good innovators borrow, great innovators steal

Good innovators look at what others are doing in their industry, learn from these in-market experiments and apply these ideas to their own organization, with the goal of avoiding some of their competitor’s mistakes.

Great innovators look at what is happening in other industries and “steal” these ideas to disrupt their core market. For insurance companies, this could mean pivoting to a business model that uses crowdsourcing and demographic data for underwriting highly personalized policies which are sold directly to consumers and commercial lines buyers. In the media and entertainment industry, Disney is embracing a new business model that replaces distribution of movies and sports content through middlemen such as Netflix and cable TV companies in favor of selling directly to consumers via the Disney website and mobile apps.

5. Imagine the future and work backward

Innovators are futurists, and they are continuously imagining the next big thing. While it’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in 10 years, it’s important to understand where the world is now and where it will be tomorrow.

  • Imagine the Future

Voraciously consume information by perusing websites on a daily basis for statistics, trends, developments, inventions, and breakthroughs. Attend industry events, listen to webinars, meet with customers, and read several books a month. Patterns will emerge that allow us to envision future scenarios based on current trends. For example, if the percentage of people buying electric cars is increasing over time, we know that changes to the power grid will be needed to accommodate how people charge their vehicles, and we can begin to think about what the future will look like and what technologies will be needed to get there.

  • Begin to Work Backwards

Once we conceive several possible scenarios, we begin to work backward. This is essentially the opposite of forecasting. First, we envision a future state scenario. Consider a future world in which flying cars are everywhere. What steps are needed for flying cars to become reality in the future? This list could include vehicle costs, air traffic control considerations, energy sources, acceptable flying ranges, take-off and landing requirements, the safety of “drivers” and the public, collision avoidance technology, networking and computing systems, and alternative solutions.

Once you have this list, you’re ready to develop predictions, which should be short statements about what will happen in a given period of time. Avoid using exact dates, because even the best innovators don’t really know for sure what the future holds, and specific dates are less relevant than definitive trends. Share your predictions in presentations and industry articles to get feedback. Use these predictions to press for change, training, and coaching at the executive level, at the department level and at the individual employee level. Operating across multiple organizational levels is required to create the “burning platform” for change and instilling a culture of innovation.